This post is the text companion to episodes one and two of the Computer Music For Dorks Show
People have been scared of computers for as long as computers have existed; people don’t like their machines to talk back –at least not in meaningful ways. One of the first things we fantasize about, in terrified glee, is sacrificing music to the altar of computers. The art form that connects us most deeply with what makes us human, our experiences, will be surrendered in a celebration of the rational and boring and the dismissal of the chaotic and visceral.
I remember reading, some years ago, that the record label, squad, and prospective, Wierd Records had a strong belief in the analog way of making synthetic sounds. Returning to the statement, after studying computer science, computer based composition, and years of trying to adopt a “let them do their thing” attitude, I still grip onto my feeling of repulsion and offense, reading
“Analogue is alive. The flow of electricity from the wall shapes and contours through the synthesiser into waveforms which can be turned on and off… all of what the synthesiser outputs is analogous to the amorphous electric charge emanating from the wall. I liken the playing of these synths to a craft, the making of something with one’s hands. Perhaps akin to the ice sculptor’s chisel — it is a fragile and vulnerable balance between hand and tool… working with MIDI or laptops pushes electronic music further towards the realm of computer programming — total immersion in a solipsistic, de-materialised phantom world. The spontaneity and physicality of performance are greatly diminished, if not lost entirely… Working with analog synthesizers and sequencers that utilize CV offers a tangibility and “realness” that cannot be replicated on a flat screen…”
A person working with computers is just another cog in the machines great scheme to steal us from ourselves, while someone sitting behind stacks of synthesizers is another great entry in the proud history of proletariat ingenuity and dignity. What fascinates me in reading this is the declaration of a binary between computer and analogue or, as this artist sees it, real and phantom. One end of the scale is computer music, which seeks to rip away the authenticity that analogue once heralded, on the other is the true and documented course of history.
In fact, the genesis of computer music happened in a private institution, called Bell Labs, in America, a place not often known for art institutions with goals of altruistic progress. A mixture of collaboration, diverse grouping of influences, and courage in experimentation without expectation of outcome made up the soil from which computer based compositions evolved and still stands strong.
1957 saw Max Matthews writing the computer program MUSIC, later to become MUSIC IV and to be used by composers from an array of backgrounds as well as give birth to the premium computer music tools of today, including MAX/MSP. The software had little ideas or ethos of its’ own and was nearly impossible to break, leading to a culture of play, lightness and fun, which carries on into computer music today. Matthews’ and, not much later, scientist/composer Barry Vercoe’s and John Chowning’s, inventions were so prescient that nowhere else in the world had developed anything similar. An American Institution, Bell Labs, whose original mission was exploration of technology as it related to the channeling of sound (the gramophone, the telephone), was years ahead in foreseeing a relationship between computers and music. When the facts of these technological developments are considered a wholly new narrative forms, one far different from 20th century music being guided by genius composers in Europe, plump with government money, developing the new standards of culture.
The titles these European composers chose to give to their work, Musique Concrete and Elektronische Musik, still stand as statuesque monoliths attempting to cement the music as global consciousness shattering developments on par with the splitting of the atom. The American Computer Music, however, simply states the one tool requisite to make the music, more specific than Elektronische Musik and far less ethereal than Musique Concrete. Others had thought of using the algorithm as a compositional tool to imagine new sound worlds that would explode out of the computer, notably Greece’s Iannis Xenakis. However, renowned composer James Tenney was one of the first to compose music for Matthews’ new software, making him one of the first to make music for a computer, and develop ideas about music for computers, all commencing a 1960 trip to Bell Labs. Although the MUSIC software was housed away, it was in such a strange place that it invited quite a disparate crowd compared with other centers of musical production.
And the disparate crowds did come! Jean Claude-Risset who crafted fantasies in his mind of sounds that mimicked the clouds above (different clusters coming together to form a whole), also traveled to Bell Labs early on to compose digital suites about the nuclear bombing of Japan and his childhood nature fantasies. Pietro Grossi an Italian composer began combining recorded sounds of people talking and trains with dense computer-generated tone clusters and swooping glissandi. Grossi’s work often traversed long periods of time and focused on very specific sound worlds, but each composition was radically different in the sound worlds it investigated, showing the vast power of even early computer music software.
New computer music labs in United States began to emerge. Charles Dodge started one in the early 1970s in Brooklyn, and was one of the first to develop computer programs for human voice processing. Whereas John Cage used star maps to determine parameters, such as pitch, in pieces like Atlas Eclipiticalis, Dodge, on the other hand, took a more literal approach, using magnetic field data to control computer generated sound. Using data to make compositional decisions, what is sometimes termed Sonification, is, currently, gaining a great foot hold in the world of art and popular music, but originates in 1970s Computer Music.
Eventually IRCAM in France took hold of Matthews’ MUSIC, but not before an electronic/computer music studio was founded by Lejaren Hiller at the University of Illinois before the end of the 1960s. Hiller and John Cage produced a stunning Computer Music collaboration, called HPSCHD, at this facility. Herbert Brun traveled from Europe to lecture and utilize the studio. Brun’s stay at the University of Illinois gave birth to some of the most exciting, challenging, and abrasive works of Computer Music, even to this day. Brun was also notable in that he dove deepest into creating work entirely for computer, opposed to computer in tandem with acoustic instruments, as seen on his record Sawdust. Kenneth Gaburo also worked and taught at the university developing work involving text, the human voice, computer processing as well as working in collaboration with Brun, Hiller, and many others who would come to visit the studio. All of Gaburo’s work was marked by his flair for inventiveness and lack of concern with pre-conceived standards of music.
The 1970s also saw new progress and work being completed at Bell Labs with Laurie Spiegel visiting to compose music and build software with Matthews himself. Spiegel was experienced with analogue instruments and was one of the first people, prior to the advent of cross-instrument musical information languages, to use computers to control other electronic instruments. Realizations of music made with this software can be seen on her record The Expanding Universe.
Only male artists have been mentioned in this writing up until this point which is worsened by the cultural coding of the computer as masculine and the business world of digital technology being clearly anti-woman. I find it easy to classify Computer Music and the world of experimental music as exclusionary to women. I also note that the most ground breaking moments of computer music happened in the late 1950s into the 1960s, a time of even more extreme institutionalized and colloquial sexism and misogyny than today. While I find it tragic and pathetic that the world of computer music could not push beyond outside forces, and that Bell Labs, a place so forward thinking technologically could not be more forward thinking socially, I also recognize that computer music was situated within a sexist culture. I also find no benefit in describing a presence of women prior to there being one, because it both masks the sexist nature of the period while not giving an accurate picture of the history of the music. Experimental music and electronic music had more examples of early participation and progression by women, but Computer Music’s early days were marred by needing access to the machines, software, and knowledge, which added to the exclusion of women in addition to the sexism of the time.
I have also failed to mention any black composers of computer music. Sadly, the number of black composers in computer music has little changed, despite the incredible contributions to the field by George Lewis a jazz trombonist, professor, software designer and composer. I will return to Lewis later, who deserves a great deal more respect than to be tokenized as the black computer music composer. Sadly, experimental music, outside of Jazz, has had radically and horrifically low inclusion of black composers and artists. GRM, to my knowledge, has not published any black artists, for instance, and IRCAM excluded many jazz greats, including Anthony Braxton from use of the facility. I separate my discussion of the inclusion of black artists from the inclusion of women because shifts in technology and pedagogical policy have done so little to change the levels of access for black cultural workers. In the United States, in fact, although laws that overtly pertain to race have been withdrawn, racism and violent racism have remained omnipresent and barely shifted, which is further evidenced in limits on autonomy in the world of Computer Music for black artists.
The 1980s saw more inclusion of women, but the numbers, visibility, and prestige still show the lack of access afforded to women in the world of Computer Music. Janis Mattox is a fantastic case study in a forward thinking, progressive, and virtuosic computer musician having little attention despite incredible work. Helping to found the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford, a pioneering and early facility for Computer Music, did little to shift Mattox’s status away from marginal figure. I see Mattox as one of the most forward thinking and accomplished producers of computer music during this period, and a predecessor to the musicians and composers that would come after her.
Mattox’s work in the 1970s and 1980s was brought on, in part, because of great progressions in the technology available and thus greater implementations of computer based sound. Working with a different focus than Mattox, Curtis Roads discovered new ways that the computer could divide up sounds into tiny particles that he called “grains.” A waveform could be chunked down to its’ smallest parts and then manipulated and moved to reveal micro sound worlds that were not possible to explore on different technology. Roads called his discovery “Granular Synthesis” and the style has been implemented many times over on many different pieces of commercial and open source software.
During this same time period a piece of software called HMSL was written at Mills College by Larry Polansky, Phil Burk and David Rosenboom. This program allowed for musical events to be nested within other musical events to be run at different points in the compilation of the program. The language also interfaced with the new standardized language for sending digital music data, MIDI, so the possibilities were labyrinthine and vast.
A leader in experimental music at Mills College, where HMSL was developed, Pauline Oliveros, had spent decades pushing the boundaries of acoustic, electronic and tape composition, but worked very little with computers. Later in life, with her groups formed around Deep Listening and her ever evolving hardware turned software called the Expanded Instrument System, Oliveros began exploring work with computers. Oliveros developed artificial intelligence software that could improvise with her and these spontaneous ensembles. Beyond simply making an instrument with software to use in an improvisational setting she empowered computers and performers to view the act of listening, the central tenant of improvisation, in a new way.
Similar to Oliveros’ computer listening systems is George Lewis’ Voyager software. The software, which was first released in 1990, reacts to a live performer in real time, thus further progressing the field of free improvisation which Lewis helped to define. Collective, live, vital, and wholly dynamic improvisation grew out of Lewis’ creative software and its’ collaborations with other people.
The 1990s brought the advent of the laptop and more commercial music software than was ever before conceivable. The music synthesis softwares SuperCollider, Max/MSP and PureData were all released, all directly building off of the algorithms designed by Mathews for Music IV, and suddenly one could be a programmer of complex music systems within an afternoon.
During this time a gaggle of programmers, DJs, musicians, producers, and record label havers set up a loose network to share ideas, tracks, parties, and software. A student of Curtis Roads, Alberto De Campo, who had helped Roads develop some of his software and ideas, designed software for a crew of artist’s around the label Editions Mego. Farmer’s Manual, CD_Slopper, General Magic, Evol, Schmickler & Lehn duo, Fenn O’Berg, Haswell & Hecker, among many other less codified formations, built software and played music together using programmatic ideas that had been developed decades earlier. What is fascinating about this period is how much more collaboration and creativity were prized over authenticity or technical ability. De Campo, among many others, was not the first to carry this spirit, Matthews in the 60s, Dodge in the 70s, Lewis, Roads and Oliveros, and Doug Van Nort in the 1980s, among many others in the 80s, and 90s all held similar roles. The spirit of solidarity spread into the music with humor emanating from the names of groups and releases to the music itself, with, for instance, a digital version of the Mexican Hat Dance being played on Evol’s Magia Potagia.
Members of the eMego crew have become international art stars, played with rock and techno artists, taught at MIT, as well as given lectures at a number of other academic institutions, and jammed synthesizers, guitars, contact mics, drum kits and whatever else they felt aided their vision. The proximity of this group of musicians to the academy, popular culture, and each other is a great deal different than the portrait of the solipsistic dork clacking keys in a basement, sacrificing the real world to the altar of fear in honor of some phantom reality. Rather, the level of collaboration and forced humility through the delayed gratification involved in computer music production has led to a sprawling community of cultural and technical producers, a million stupid subcultures, and generally a landscape of un-self-seriousness mixed with serious focus towards a progression of collective art and consciousness.
The computer’s ability to move data around, now made even easier with the world wide web, has fostered playfulness over posturing and the group over lone genius. I suppose the computer does exorcise our consciousness after all, but it does so in order to concatenate it with everyone else’s in an ever-expanding celebration of experience.